MALIBU — Cheyenne Potensky, 19, is set to undergo a $300,000 procedure in which doctors will fuse her legs together and permanently attach a prosthetic fish tail — to turn her into a real life mermaid.
And although the pretty teen won’t go through the painful series of operations until next year, she already considers herself a mermaid — and is demanding that her birth certificate be changed to say so.
“Being a mermaid isn’t about having a tail. It’s about your spirit,” she explains. “In the movie The Little Mermaid, the Sea Witch Ursula puts a spell on Ariel so she can walk on land, but she’s still a mermaid, legs or no legs.”
Cheyenne has been cruelly dubbed a “mermaid wannabe” by some in the local press, which upsets and infuriates her.
“This one reporter wrote that I can’t even swim, but that’s not true. I can’t swim underwater. And that’s only because I have trouble holding my breath. I’m taking lessons and by the time I transition, I know I’ll be able to stay under at least a minute, which is more than most people.”
Experts are divided over whether or not Cheyenne should be categorized as a “real” mermaid.
“There’s more to being a mermaid than simply having a fish tail,” points out folklorist James K. Youdway. “In legends, the sea creatures have their own language and traditions. Unless Miss Potensky sits on a rock and lures sailors to their doom by her seductive singing, I’m not sure she should be considered a true mermaid.”
Marine biologist Dr. Sandy Paetel disagrees. “If she has a fish tail and spends all her time in the water, she is for all intents and purposes a mermaid,” she says. “It’s like those living people who are obsessed with drinking human blood. Even though they have no supernatural powers, they’re by definition vampires.”
George “Rusty” Bimmit, a 69-year-old local fisherman and neighbor, scoffs at the notion that Cheyenne is a mermaid, and stubbornly refuses to call her one.
“If Bubbles the Chimp falls in the ocean, that doesn’t make him a sea monkey,” the ornery oldster argues. “I’ll consider that nutcase a mermaid when she not only has a scaly tail, she also has gills.”
Cheyenne calls that kind of talk plain ignorant.
“That just proves Rusty’s total lack of understanding,” she insists. “Mermaids don’t have gills. They come up for air just like dolphins, because they’re mammals. Or didn’t he notice what’s under Ariel’s seashell bra?”
The waitress, who plans to sell a family home she inherited to pay for the surgery, says she’s been obsessed with mermaids ever since she saw the movie
Splash at age 6. Her parents had to spend a small fortune on mermaid toys, lunch boxes and wallpaper, and she went trick-o’-treating in a mermaid costume every Halloween.
“I came out as a mermaid in 2009,” she reveals. “It took my parents a long time to accept it, but thankfully they did, just a few months before they died in a tandem parasailing accident.”
If Cheyenne goes through with the complex procedure docs call mermaidoplasty, she’ll be one of only six people in the world who’ve done so, most recently a 32-year-old “merman” in Thailand.
In addition, numerous performers wear removable mermaid tails as costumes. Perhaps the most famous is a Florida woman born Melissa Dawn, who legally changed her name to Mermaid Melissa and performs at aquariums, corporate events, and poolside parties, sporting a 60-pound artificial tail.
Most marine biologists consider mermaids mythical creatures — despite myriad “mermaid skeletons” that have been put on display in museums and sideshows worldwide after supposedly washing ashore. However, there is a rare birth defect known as Mermaid Syndrome in which the legs are fused together, giving them the appearance of a mermaid’s tail. This condition, also called Sirenomelia, occurs in roughly one out of every 100,000 live births.
“Tragically, most die in infancy,” says Dr. Paetel. “Otherwise, that would mean each year about 130 of such ‘mermaids’ would be born, and if they were trained to swim, in 25 years we’d have enough to populate the Indian Ocean.”
Copyright C. Michael Forsyth